LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday he is open to considering a proposal to change the state’s lottery scholarship program so that amounts would increase as students advance through college.
"Something is going to have to be done," Beebe said. "I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it, but I’m keeping an open mind to listen to what all the evidence is first."
State Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, testified Tuesday before the legislative committee that oversees the lottery on a proposal to award lottery-funded Academic Challenge Scholarships at different amounts for each grade level. Freshmen would receive $2,000, sophomores $3,000, juniors $4,000 and seniors $5,000.
Students currently receive $4,500 per year to attend a four-year school and $2,250 per year to attend a two-year school.
Key, who co-chairs the lottery oversight panel, said he was offering the proposal simply as one possible way to address a projected shortfall in the lottery scholarship program.
Scholarship awards for the current school year are projected to exceed lottery revenues and general revenue spending on the scholarship program. State Department of Higher Education officials say they expect to draw on a $20 million reserve of unspent lottery funds to make up the difference, but no plan is in place to deal with deficit spending in future years, after the reserve is depleted.
"There are things that obviously need to be explored to make sure we’ve got sufficient moneys to be able to honor whatever we commit to," Beebe said Wednesday.
The governor said his top concern is ensuring that commitments already made to students are kept.
"My big issue has always been, whatever we do with a class, let’s keep it that way through their entire four-year period, as long as they stay eligible," he said. "Let’s not take anything away from those students once it was promised to them, as long as they fulfill their requirements and keep their promise and keep their grades where they are supposed to be."
Key said Tuesday his proposal, if adopted by the Legislature during the session that starts in January, would not affect students currently attending college on Academic Challenge Scholarships.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who led the drive to create the state lottery in 2008, said Tuesday he opposes the proposal, which he said would not be consistent with what voters were promised four years ago and would make it more difficult for Arkansans to obtain a college education.
Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.